Atlas Magazine May 2010

The precautionary principle

After the Chernobyl and Bhopal disasters and the scandals of the mad cow disease, the contaminated blood, asbestos and the H1N1 flu, it is now time for the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjoll to revive the debate over the holy precautionary principle.

First introduced in Germany at the end of the 1960s, the precautionary principle is engraved in the constitution of many countries. Originally, this principle was applied only to environmental and health risks. Today, the public authorities do not hesitate to make use of this principle as a shield against any possible recourses in a society of misconduct and indemnification.

The precautionary principle is dragging behind the principle of responsibility, the responsibility to stop or suppress an activity. It may paradoxically stand as a threat to some sectors of business like scientific research or air transport in particular.

In fact, the precautionary principle tends to eliminate the risk. But the zero risk is a utopia and life can never be devoid of risk. The risk is necessarily incidental to all human activities and it is also out there in nature. The Eyjafjoll volcano is only a clear reminder that Man is not in control of everything and that no one can be held responsible for the mistakes made.

By hiding behind the precautionary principle, the public authorities give special weight to the risk-free culture: excessive responsibility is preferred to the absence of precaution.

Comprehensive insurance for some, overzealous authorities for others, the precautionary principle has and will continue to prompt controversy.

One thing for sure, insurers are not concerned by the force majeure.

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